REVIEW! How To Catch A Krampus, Sink the Pink @ Pleasance Theatre

Writer, Director, Designer: Ginger Johnson
Musical Direction: Sarah Bodalbhai
Produced by Glyn Fussell for Sink The Pink and Nic Connaughton for Pleasance
Featuring: Ginger Johnson, Lavinia Co-op, David Cumming, Mairi Houston, Mahatma Khandi, and Maxi More
13 Nov – 23 Dec 2018

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Ginger Johnson in How To Catch a Krampus. Images courtesy of Ali Wright

I was instantly drawn to this show when I read its title: the figure of the Krampus, a devilish Central European counterweight to Saint Nicholas, has always held a particular dark fascination to me. The image of a dark, cold, snowy land, inhabited by sinister figures and child-punishing monsters, forms the very antithesis to the jolly, magical, family-friendly wonderland which we in the West associate with Christmas. I was not disappointed by this production, which used exactly this creepy Gothic horror setting (kudos to sound and lighting designers, Alicia Jane Turner and Clancy Flynn) to tell a panto story that was both fabulously dark and silly – featuring history’s campest Krampus!

Ginger Johnson, a veteran London drag queen, wrote and stars in this story about a charlatan spirit medium who embarks on a quest to return a stolen child to his grieving and impoverished family. In the process, Ginger is forced to confront her own past and its associated demons – she may have lost her son to the Krampus, but she is the only person who can stop history from repeating itself. Along the way we meet a motley assortment of characters, encompassing a crew of highly comic Morris dancers, a coven of genuinely chilling demonic witches, an Italian opera diva and her questionable translator, an elderly prostitute with a colourful history, a Rocky Horror-esque German mad scientist, and many many more.

As you can probably imagine, many of these skits did not link up with each other in any sort of narrative sense, and at times this could be disorienting as your brain tried to fit together pieces drawn from different puzzles. However, all fit perfectly with theme of a deliciously dark and naughty Christmas panto, showcasing the performers’ skills at spoof and spook, dance and drama, slapstick and soprano. Musical highlights included:

  • 67-year-old Lavinia Co-op blending class and crass in a slowed-down parody of Rihanna’s S&M;
  • An all-cast a capella (I think?) and actually goosebump-raising rendition of MJ’s Thriller;
  • Dancing from Morris, Morris, Morris, Morris, Morris, and Susan;
  • A side-splittingly chaotic version of The Twelve Days of Christmas;
  • Houston sweetly singing Not While I’m Around from Sweeney Todd whilst attempting patricide;
  • Look, basically every other moment of the show…
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Lavinia Co-op and Mairi Houstin in How To Catch a Krampus. Images courtesy of Ali Wright

While each performer got their time in the spotlight, much of this show’s charm came from the chemistry between its characters. Mairi Houston as the token non-drag actor had a wonderful dynamic with Ginger Johnson, acting as a perfectly contrasting counterpart to the flamboyant larger-than-life queen. How To Catch A Krampus is bookended by comedic collaboration/confrontation between Ginger Johnson and David Cumming, whose relationship sparks with friction and hidden tensions – when they revealed the twist ending to the fable, the theatre erupted with shocked gasps.

A warning: this production is not for the faint-hearted, prudes, traditionalists, or children. Expect jump scares (the very first moment of the performance had me violently spilling my red wine over my neighbour’s yellow jacket, ooops), partial nudity, jokes about swords being semi-sexually inserted into various orifices, and all sorts of outrageous stunts. But a riot is rarely a safe event, and How To Catch A Krampus is certainly a riotously good time for the open-minded.

Tickets

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Previous review: Cuckoo by Lisa Carroll @ Soho Theatre

REVIEW! Cuckoo by Lisa Carroll @ Soho Theatre

Written by Lisa Carroll
Directed by Debbie Hannan
Produced by Sofi Berenger

Presented by Metal Rabbit Productions
13 November – 8 December 2018

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Elise Heaven and Caitriona Ennis as Pingu and Iona. Images courtesy of David Gill

Cuckoo is a new play from Irish playwright Lisa Carroll. It follows the story of Iona, a teen girl growing up in rural Ireland, and her best friend Pingu, who is non-binary, voluntarily mute, and sports a raggedy ensemble of hoodie, tuxedo, and lapel badges, which I found oddly appealing. The two are sick of being social outcasts in their little town, where poverty is rife, opportunities are few, and the teenagers are particularly vicious – so, they decide to buy one-way Ryanair tickets to London, where they can start afresh. When the local cool kids get wind of this plan via Iona’s social media broadcasts, she finds herself suddenly getting the attention she always craved – but how will this impact her plans to get out, and her relationship with Pingu? It’s a variation on the same teen drama premise that inspired Mean Girls and countless others, but this story is Irish not American, so there is no Hollywood happy ending here.

The black box theatre space is small and intimate, with rows of audience seating arranged along both long sides of a profile stage. I would strongly advise arriving early enough to land one of the front row seats, as the barely-tiered rows behind have obscured views of the stage (especially if the front row occupants are tall!). However, even if you can’t see the lower parts of the stage, this won’t ruin your enjoyment of the show, as its main attraction is the fizzing energy and dialogue of its characters. Caitriona Ennis as Iona is particularly outstanding, with razor-sharp comic abilities and an incredibly expressive face and voice. Peter Newington as Trix plays a straightforward toxically masculine bully with aplomb, but Colin Campbell and Sade Malone have the more challenging roles of antagonists with vulnerabilities and softer sides. The fact that these supporting roles still have their own compelling and pathos-filled arcs speaks to both the actors’ and writer’s skills.

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Elise Heaven and Sade Malone as Pingu and Toller. Images courtesy of David Gill

Elise Heaven as Pingu also manages to be wonderfully expressive, despite their grand total of zero lines; instead, their eyes and body language have to do all the work in expressing anguish, joy, sass, hurt, worry, resentment, and everything in between. I’m still not completely comfortable about the ethics of having a non-binary character who is mainly just a silent satellite around the cisgender protagonist, but in some ways, I suppose the fact that Pingu’s gender identity does not dominate the conversation is a step towards normalisation. The usage of singular they/them pronouns is still quite new even to more progressive social circles, but not even the bullies in Cuckoo misgender Pingu. The play and, for the most part its characters, do not treat Pingu’s gender identity like a riddle to be solved, but as just another reason why they and the quirky Iona don’t fit in.

Iona is the only character in the play who goes by their birth name (I’m assuming that “Pockets”, for example, is probably a nickname). This, to me, seems yet another example of how she inhabits a no-man’s-land between belonging to a group – and being bestowed with a personalised nickname from the gang – and having the confidence for independent self-determination like Pingu, who we presume chose their own name as part of their journey coming out. The name “Iona” isn’t even Irish, but Scottish; for all that it looks and sounds typically Irish, it is an outsider in the small country town of Crumlin. Much like its bearer. And so it is no surprise that Iona’s desperate attempts to belong will fail, no matter how many others she pushes from the nest to do so.

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Caitriona Ennis and Colin Campbell as Iona and Pockets. Images courtesy of David Gill

These characters are messy, with figurative open wounds bleeding all over the floor even as they continue to claw at each other. Their moments of connection and softness are beautiful, as are their flares of raw rage at the hand they’ve been dealt. Cuckoo is a snapshot of a very specific piece of society, exploring questions of class, gender, youth, belonging, family, and fried chicken. And, throughout all of this, it is laugh-out-loud funny! Young people in particular will appreciate the way Cuckoo is bang up to date for 2018, but I fear that many of the pop culture, political, and technological references will date fairly quickly – all the more reason to catch it while it’s fresh.

Tickets

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Previous review: vessel by Sue MacLaine Company @ Battersea Arts Centre

REVIEW! Chutney, Flux Theatre @ The Bunker

Writer: Reece Connolly
Producers: Flux Theatre & Zoe Weldon

Director: Georgie Staight
Cast: Isabel Della-Porta and Will Adolphy
6 November – 1 December 2018

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Images ©Rah Petherbridge Photography

Claire and Gregg are young, attractive, and successful. They have their own place with a spacious backyard, a stylish modern kitchen, a spare bedroom, and a John Lewis blender. He teaches English at the local school, she works a 9-5 (well, more like 8:30-6 and sometimes weekends) office job, and together they cook vegetarian meals, drink wine, watch telly, and brutally kill neighbourhood pets in the dead of night. The question is: is it true that couples who murder together, stay together?

Chutney is a black comedy with a white set, and the ethics of its narrative are pretty black-and-white to match: animal cruelty is wrong, and Claire and Gregg are basically evil, no matter how much they assert that they are simply ‘good people who do bad things’. And yet, they are shockingly, hilariously, relatably normal people, grappling with the challenges and mundanities of modern life. This is most evident in Claire, who is bored of her job and scornful of her colleagues, for all that she wants to impress them. When a workmate gifts her a kitschy singing fish for her birthday, its refrain – 9 to 5 by Dolly Parton – kicks off an existential panic attack: is this all life is? Working 9-5? Ticking boxes, keeping up appearances, saving up for an orangery? What the fuck even is an orangery, anyway??

Isabel Della-Porta is absolutely phenomenal as Claire. She is at once every go-getter young professional I’ve ever worked with (or for), a chilling Lady-Macbeth-slash-Cruella-de-Vil, and even myself when at my darkest and most morbid. I am reminded strongly of assassin Villanelle (portrayed by Jodie Comer) in BBC America’s recent series Killing Eve; both actors manage to create characters with fascinating capacities for viciousness and vulnerability, seductiveness and savagery, intelligence and insensitivity. Della-Porta moves like a shark around the stage, perfectly in control of the space and her character down to every syllable and facial twitch. Will Adolphy as Gregg is pulled along in her wake – accomplice, consort, subject, partner – and evokes the perfect mixture of pity and scorn in the audience as he sinks lower and lower into depravity trying to please her. He knows she is free-falling, and all he wants is to fall with her. Their chemistry is magnetic.

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Images ©Rah Petherbridge Photography

Both actors – as well as voice actor Rosalind McAndrew, who plays the narrator (Bertha the singing fish, don’t question it) – are brilliantly directed by Georgie Staight. I also have only good things to say of the various creative designers (Jasmine Swan on set and costume, Matt Cater on lighting, and Ben Winter on sound), whose contributions are crisp, effective, clever, and beautifully complement the script.

And of course the script, from up-and-coming writer Reece Connolly, is bitingly funny and ferociously intelligent. The dialogue crackles and the mood ricochets between hilarity, brutality, and desperate pathos. The satire of modern society and life is cutting without being patronising, and the thematic questions are explored with insight and self-awareness. In an increasingly artificial world, are we out of touch with our own human natures, and if so, is that such a bad thing? Are we all so concerned with maintaining a perfect facade that we are sacrificing all structural integrity, and crumbling as a result? How can we find meaning and stability in lives which seem increasingly hollow and precarious? Does anyone really connect anymore? Is ground-up bone meal really a good fertiliser for hanging plants?

Get yourself down to The Bunker Theatre, and you might just find out.

Tickets

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Previous review: Mirabel by Chris Goode @ Ovalhouse

The Wild Duck, after Henrik Ibsen @ The Almeida Theatre

Cast and Creatives:
Nicholas Day, Grace Doherty, Nicholas Farrell, Andrea Hall, Kevin Harvey, Edward Hogg, Lyndsey Marshal, Clara Read, Rick Warden
After Henrik Ibsen, in a new version created by Robert Icke
Design: Bunny Christie
Light: Elliot Griggs
Sound: Tom Gibbons
Casting: Julia Horan CDG

15th October- 1st December

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A bold re-imagining of classic Ibsen

I was very excited to see this piece at The Almeida Theatre, being a fan of director Robert Icke; Icke’s previous credits for The Almeida include Hamlet and Mary Stuart.

The Wild Duck explores the family life of James and Gina Ekdal and exposes the life-destroying secrets which lie behind the couple’s happy pretenses. Icke has modernised the production and it has a Brechtian feel. The actors break the fourth wall constantly by explaining their characters feelings and what is going on in the scene. This is a very interesting technique which at first keeps the near three hour piece feeling snappy and fresh. However, as the play went on this technique became slightly patronising.

All actors in this remarkable piece are excellent. The play is extremely captivating due to their fantastic storytelling skills. When the disastrous consequences are revealed for the Ekdal family, the audience were gasping and muttering. It felt like the audience were part of the family, which is what made the play so moving and heartbreaking.

The show is beautifully designed by Bunny Christie. The set is minimal and naturalistic but turns into a beautiful garden at the end of the piece.

The Wild Duck is a fantastic modern take on Ibsen’s classic play. It is exceptionally well directed and all the performances brilliant and captivating. This is a piece which is not to be missed.

Also, there is a real live duck on stage!

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Shift, Barely Methodical Troupe @ Underbelly Circus Hub

Directed and devised by Melissa Ellberger, Ella Robson Guilfoyle and the Cast
Performed by Louis Gift, Esmeralda Nikolajeff, Elihu Vazquez, and Charlie Wheeller​
Produced by ​​Di Robson​
4 – 25 August at Underbelly Circus Hub, Edinburgh

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Shift – courtesy of Gregory Batardon

Shift by Barely Methodical Troupe is categorised on the Edinburgh Fringe website as “dance/physical theatre/circus”, which I initially thought must have meant that all shows of those genres were being lumped together – however, as it turns out, Shift really did deserve equal claim to all those descriptors!

The four performers bounded around the stage with an energy of absolute exuberance, interacting like playful siblings, completely comfortable with their own bodies and each others’. There was only a minimal amount of dialogue, mainly in the form of light banter with the audience, in an informal style which added to the intimate atmosphere. Moments when the playful, comedic mood was dropped included a beautiful routine accompanied by haunting singing from Esmeralda Nikolajeff in her native Swedish (I assume), and a dream-like sequence with the gigantic (and distractingly handsome) Louis Gift delivering a hypnotising spoken-word parable whilst his castmates clambered over his body. Lighting and reverberant soudscapes accentuated performances without distracting from them, and the few tools involved – mainly rubber resistance bands and a Cyr Wheel – were similarly woven into the show in a way that felt like they were just accessories to the central feature: the performers’ astounding athletic, acrobatic skills.

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Shift – courtesy of Gregory Batardon

Each cast member showed off their own particular skill set to great effect: Elihu Vazquez performed break dancing as if he had electric currents running through his veins, and Charlie Wheeller effortlessly handled the Cyr Wheel like it was a perfectly-trained circus animal. However, the most compelling acts were certainly those featuring the partnership of Nikolajeff and Gift; their big-brother-little-sister chemistry and gentle physical comedy were absolutely charming, as they performed breathtaking feats and subverted expectations of their respective roles (Nikolajeff may be petite, but it turns out she’s probably stronger than most burly men twice her size!).

My only minor criticism would be that the various components of the piece didn’t always tie in with each other intuitively, or segue smoothly from one to the next. Unfortunately, it was these ragged tonal shifts which were the weak point of Shift, and the only times when it lost momentum. However, overall this was a beautiful, magical performance which I am positive held every audience member spellbound for its duration, from the little girls in pigtails in the front row to the elderly couple sitting beside me. I hope I can catch the next performance from Barely Methodical Troupe, as whatever it might be, I am confident I will love it too.

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The Song of Lunch, by Christopher Reid @ Pleasance Courtyard

Directed by Jason Morell
Featuring Robert Bathurst and Rebecca Johnson
Animations by Charles Peattie
Produced by Thirty/20 Theatre and Suzanna Rosenthal of Something for the Weekend
1 – 27 August at 2:20pm at The Pleasance Courtyard, Forth theatre

Picture by Karla Gowlett

Robert Bathurst’s unnamed character in The Song of Lunch is a man who wishes he could turn back time. A stuffy older white man, working in the publishing industry and determinedly inhabiting a fantasy London in which he can still brush shoulders with literary greats in the streets of Soho, he has summoned his ex from her comfortable life and family in Paris to meet with him for lunch in an old trattoria. What is he hoping for? Pleasant reminiscences on old times? To rekindle their lost love? As lunch progresses and the Chianti bottles empty, the Publisher’s defenses are slowly stripped away under his companion’s mercilessly incisive gaze, and we see the foibles of his psychology laid bare.

This play is staged in the tucked-away and packed-out Pleasance Forth theatre, and its audience comprises almost entirely of older middle-aged theatregoers who recognise Robert Bathurst from Cold Feet and Downton Abbey. The simple, rhythmic elegance of its lyrical writing and the minimalist staging – supported by gorgeous animations by Charles Peattie – feels a world away from the raucous variety of attention-grabbing artistic gambles which characterise usual Fringe shows. Like the haute cuisine enjoyed by its characters, this play appears light and bite-sized on the surface, but has layers of subtle complexities and flavours which mean that the subsequent analytical discourse forms half the pleasure. I feel that I would need a whole essay to unpack the meaning of this piece, in an operation as delicate as the lady character’s dissection and consumption of her sea bass. If pressured, I would summarise thus: this story is about an individual’s (or a country’s? An empire’s? A social class’s? A gender’s?) inability to accept that, through his own failings, the sun is setting on his glory days and a new era is beginning to dawn without him. Rather than taking responsibility for his shortcomings and adapting to make the best of the changing times, he clings desperately to an unattainable and rosy-filtered image of the past. Like Orpheus, in succumbing to the temptation to look backwards instead of forwards, he throws away the chance of a brighter future.

All the talk of tragedy and pathos aside, this play is also incredibly witty and had the audience chuckling and chortling both with and at the charming yet pathetic Publisher. Rebecca Johnson as the “old flame” is also wonderful, embodying poised self-confidence and providing an empathetic yet no-nonsense balance to the narrator’s self-indulgence (the golden tones of her hair and the warm lights she is often bathed in provide welcome relief from Publisher’s cooler, almost anaemic colour scheme).

The playbill includes a note from the playwright which suggests that, though originally intended to be a ‘piece of pure comedy, a light farce’, during the writing process the play had found its own, darker shape, in a process of which he ‘was only partially aware’. This is evident from the contrast between the light, optimistic, playful mood of the beginning in contrast to the somewhat bleak ending, and the piece’s tangled deeper meanings (teasingly self-parodied when the Flame suggests a convoluted counter-interpretation to the Publisher’s poetry, and is met by a blank response of ‘…you’re going to have to run that past me again’). However, this very vulnerability of the piece is what lends it its charm: beneath all the witticisms and self-deprecation, this play provides a glimpse of someone who is disappointed in their past and scared of their future… I think all of us, at some time in our lives, can relate to that.

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Picture by Karla Gowlett

 

Ken, Hampstead Downstairs @ The Bunker

24 January – 24 February

by Terry Johnson
Directed by Lisa Spirling
Starring Terry Johnson & Jeremy Stockwell

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Photo Courtesy of Robert Day

Watching Ken at the Bunker, it is immediately apparent how much love the performers feel for their subject.

Terry Johnson’s piece, performed by himself and Jeremy Stockwell, is a celebration of Ken Campbell, the legendary theatre maker and comic performer. Both Stockwell and Johnson knew Campbell personally, and the love they feel for the man is obvious in the stories they tell about him.

The play describes the great influence that Campbell had on the performers themselves and many other theatre-makers. It tells the story of Johnson’s first meeting with Campbell, his participation in the 22-hour long surrealist marathon The Warp, and a montage of other encounters from throughout the artist’s life.

The episodes themselves are all incredibly funny, the kind of wild theatre legends that one can hardly believe. Watching it feels like gathering round at a party to hear crazy stories from a couple of old friends. The tales feel like the kind that have been repeated many times, and have grown in the re-telling without losing any of their core truth. They feel like a collection of theatrical legends. And there is something truly wonderful about the sharing of legends by storytellers as skilled as these.

Johnson writes and speaks with humour and warmth. He presents the piece from a carpeted podium, alternating between narrating and acting directly in the episodes described. The play includes a touching coming of age tale from Johnson’s point of view. We learn how Ken acted as a sort of shamanistic mentor to Johnson, constantly goading him into pushing his own boundaries.

Johnson presents this memoir with remarkable generosity. He shows us his evolution from awkwardly arrogant youth to grounded, mature artist. He presents himself as the perpetual observer, always on the side of the action, never quite able to join in, and shows us how Ken gave him the insight he needed to finally switch on and get in on the fun. Johnson is a very witty writer, so of course the piece is very funny. But more than simply funny, it is gleefully written. There is a joy in the telling of these stories, a contagious delight that carries the audience along for the entire ride.

Embodying that joy, and the titular Ken, is Jeremy Stockwell. Stockwell’s performance is exceptional. It transcends impression and creates something that feels truly real. I never met Ken Campbell myself, so I cannot speak to the performance’s accuracy, but I can say that Stockwell has created a truly vivid, detailed portrait of a man. I believed every moment of it. I was constantly forgetting I was watching an actor portraying a real person, despite Stockwell’s sporadic cheeky nods to this fact. Stockwell’s Ken moves through the world like some kind of clown-wizard, taking in everything around him and throwing it back out in the form of joyous, naughty fun.

His performance is always drawing us in, always including us. Sometimes he’ll make the audience into background characters in the story being told, assembled actors in a decrepit Edinburgh cinema or members of a hippie-theatre commune. Sometimes he’ll come and riff with somebody in the audience off of what’s happening on stage, bouncing off of their reactions and using the momentum to flow into the next moment. He brings us in, and allows us to be a part of these stories. We feel as if we were there. And we’re made to understand why it meant so much to be there. Why it still means so much now.

Ken is a celebration and memorial to a very influential man. But more than that, it is an exaltation at having “been there.” Johnson’s writing and Campbell’s performance allow us to live out the legends of their lives in the theatre. The stories they tell are wild, hilarious and touching, and they give us a beautiful and vivid look at a provocative and influential figure.

A moving and raucously funny piece of theatre, Ken is equal parts memoir, memorial and circus. A joy. A collection of great stories told with love, humour, and above all, fun.

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Read our interview with Joshua Mctaggart, artistic director of the Bunker Theatre here!